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Dvinsk in the Past

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From the imagination of Atzmon Ganor
Student, Grade 8B

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When you conjure up from the depths of your memory the outlines of a Jewish city and mother, you remember Dvinsk. This is Jewish Dvinsk, crowded and teeming with Jewish life. And now, when you know her voice has been silenced, horror grips you. This is what the murderers did to this source of Jewish culture. That well-spring of Jewish creativity has been stopped up and will never flow again.

There is an obligation to leave behind a memory of Dvinsk for the generations to come, so the descendants of Dvinsk will know the source from which they came, so that they will have in the forefront of their minds the memory of our sainted ones, who were turned by the evil ones into fertilizer for their fields. Until the end of all the generations, the memory of the martyrs, whose bones were ground to phosphate and whose hair was taken for stuffing mattresses, must be preserved. That is the goal of the article.


The Foundation and Development of the City of Dvisnk

The city of Dvinsk was founded in 1278 by the Knights of the Livonian Order and named Dünaburg [Dinaburg] by its founders, meaning the Fortress on the Daugava (for it was built on the western Daugava River, on whose banks the town rests). The town kept this German name for several hundreds of years, until 1893. The city lay, as has been mentioned, on the banks of the Daugava River at the junction of the Riga – Oryol and Leningrad – Vilna railroad lines. The city was therefore very attractive to occupiers, who always coveted the strategically-located spot. For the Livonian Knights it was a stronghold and a base for the broadening and strengthening of their rule over the Balticum area. More than once the Livonians, like the Russians, tried to attack the fortress (in 1315, 1403, and 1418), without success.

In the 16th century Dvinsk was captured and occupied by the Russians and was later formally passed into their hands by means of an agreement with the Polish king August Sigismund. With the destruction of the Livonian fortress in 1561, the city became part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The city went through many periods of changing rulers even after that. In 1577, the city was once again in the hands of the Russians; then later was re-claimed by the Poles. King Stefan Batory had the city surrounded with a strong, fortified wall in 1582.

In 1600 the city fell into the control of the Swedes; in 1635 by agreement it was transferred over to the Poles. In 1656 the city was taken by Tsar Alexis Mikhailovitch of Russia, who changed the German name of the town (Dinaburg) to Borisoglebsk. According to a new agreement, the city was returned to the Poles. During the Great Northern War of 1700 – 1721, the city continued to change hands.

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With the First Partition of Poland in 1772, the entire area was apportioned to Russia, but that did not provide the city with a long period of serenity. In 1795 the Poles attacked. They set fire to the city, which burned down completely. During the Napoleonic War, the city found itself for a brief time in the control of the French, and only in 1812, when Napoleon was defeated, was the city once again appended to Russia, in whose control it remained until the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

For a short period of time during World War I, the city was ruled by Germany. With the signing of the Brest-Litovsk Treat early in 1922, Dvinsk fell within the borders of the independent state of Latvia. This situation continued until 1940.

With the German occupation in 1941 and during the course of the Second World War, the city was destroyed. The fate of the Jewish community is well known. Today, Dvinsk is part of the Latvian Republic of the Soviet Union. After World War II the city was rehabilitated, and quickly developed into an important industrial center, particularly in the lumber sector, which developed thanks to the geographic conditions of the city, which sits on the banks of the Daugava River. The river, which is more than 1,000 kilometers long, provides a convenient waterway for the transport of the lumber barges. Railway lines reaching the farthest ends of vast Russia pass through the city.

The many different rulers of the city left their marks on it. The population has many layers and is made up mostly of minorities: Belarusians, Malorussians, Lithuanians, Poles, and Germans. The Jews were the largest minority: until 1914 they made up 14% of the population.

It should be mentioned that even during the period of the establishment of an independent Latvia the residents of Dvinsk completely ignored the language of the country, the Latvian tongue, and continued to conduct their public activities, including meetings in the offices of the municipality, in Russian.

The Latgalians, and the Latvian tribe in the area around the city, were regarded as forming an inferior stratum of society. Their dialect was slightly different from that of their brothers from the Lapland and Courland regions, which were considered part of a “purer” race. The latter treated the Latgalians with contempt and called them by the derogatory name Tsangalim, which means inferior. The pure Latvians, seeing themselves as close to the superior German race, assimilated among them (they all spoke German, while the Latgalians were still using their own dialect of the Russian language). The Latgalians were behind in all areas of life and occupied the poorest, most backward level in every area. For example, while in Courland and Lapland the percentage of illiterates reached 50%, the illiteracy rate in Latgale reached 30% [sic]. In the beginning, they had difficulty with their own language, which lacked tradition and history. In 1860, the population of Dvinsk was 26,000, in 1892 73,000, and in 1913 it had reached 130,000. The developing industries in the city were lumber, leather, linen, tobacco, grain, and sweets.

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The Jews of Dvinsk

The Jewish settlement in Dvinsk first put down roots in the second half of the 18th century. As has been mentioned, there was a fortress in the city, but in 1812 the Jews were forbidden from constructing and living in a permanent residence there. In spite of that, in 1805 one would have found about 800 Jews in the city. The Jewish community in the city began to grow and develop. Later, Jews began to flow into the Pale of Settlement and continue onwards to Dvinsk, so much so that at the time of the 1897 census 32,400 Jews lived there. The Jewish population continued to grow. At the outbreak of World War I there were over 60,000 Jews living in Dvinsk, making up nearly half the residents of the city.

All of the Jews of Dvinsk knew how to speak and write in Yiddish. The city had an abundance of schools (cheders) and from every direction could be heard the voices of those who began their education by studying Torah as young children and completed their studies with Gemara and Tosafot [annotations to the Talmud]. By 1887, 208 students attended a handicrafts school for girls.

Two libraries were established in the city. The same year we also find three loan funds. According to the census of 1897, Jews made up 46% of the total population. Almost all commerce was in the hands of Jews. Of 1,370 merchants, 1,134 were Jews. On the other hand, only 168 of the Jews of Dvinsk worked in agriculture. The Jews also had a large part in the clothing industry: 4,769 Jews made their living in this field. There were 838 Jews working in the education system, and 805 in lumber processing. That same year, 692 Jews served in the army. At the time, there were 3 factories which employed 575 male and female workers. In 1901 the three public elementary schools for Jewish children that existed in the city (the language of instruction was Russian) were attended by 300 students. That same year, a school for enthusiasts of the language of the past (with instruction in Hebrew) was established; it had 81 pupils.

During World War I, which broke out in 1914, the city was depleted of its Jewish inhabitants. At the command of the bitter enemy, the Grand Duke Nicholas Nikolaevich (uncle [sic] of Tsar Nicholas II) who was commander in chief of the Russian army, the Jews were expelled from every spot along the front. They were considered an untrustworthy element and were suspected of spying. Tens of thousands of Jews were forced to abandon their property and wander from place to place deep within Russia, even reaching as far as Siberia. Then the deeply-rooted Jewish Dvinsk of the people was revealed, in all its glory.

As one man, the Jews contributed to helping one another like brothers, to an unimaginable extent. The resources for a normal life were blocked. Hunger and diseases were rampant and the city emptied of its residents. Everyone who could do so fled, trying to get as far away as possible. Even the pride of the community, the Rogatchover Gaon, left; a fact which depressed those who remained. All remaining eyes fell upon the great light, the learned Rabbi Meir Simcha, who stubbornly ignored all of the insistent pleas that he also distance himself from the danger, and not just temporarily. “For as long as there are nine Jews in the city, I will remain as the tenth for a minyan,” was his reply.

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Although the Gaon, together with his flock, suffered the same misery as the other Jews in the city, for the duration of the war he refused to leave. He was as Rabbi Damta and as a father to his children.

The City's Rabbis

The city of Dvinsk was fortunate to have been served by some of the most brilliant rabbis of the generation. Among the splendid company that made the city of Dvinsk a byword in the Jewish world in the rabbinical field, there were three whose names were especially glorious.

The first of them was Rav Reuvele Dunaburger, one of the greatest geniuses of his generation, from whom the Rav Kook, may his righteous memory be blessed, learned Torah. (The Rav Kook himself was a native of Gr´va, which was located on the other side of the Daugava River which flowed between Gr´va and Dvinsk. Dvinsk had a profound influence on HaGaon Rav Kook).

The other two geniuses, who were the crown jewels in the rabbinate of that generation, were: Rav Meir Simcha HaCohen and the Rogachov (Rav Yosef Rosen). The two of them brought glory to the city and to Torah Judaism everywhere. These two men were the teachers of a generation and it is thanks to them that Dvinsk attained world-wide renown.

Rav Meir Simcha served as rabbi for 39 straight years, and the Rogachover – like Rav Damta – served honestly for fifty full years. The city of Dvinsk did not experience any sort of division between Chasids and Mitnagdim. Aside from “baruch sh'amar” and “yitzmach porkana” there was no perceptible difference between the Chasids and Mitnagdim in the city. The two streams lived side-by-side without any division between them. Although HaGaon HaRav Meir Simcha, the leader of the Mitnagdim, and the Rogachov Gaon, rabbi to the Chasids, were in their internal worlds quite far from one another in their temperaments and way of life, they were close in terms of their knowledge of Torah and their brilliance.

The erect and regal stature of the Rav Meir Simcha spoke eloquently of honor and majesty. He interacted with those around him, with a pleasant manner and measured speech, and was accepted and admired by all, including the non-Jews of the city. The latter believed with all their hearts in the magical spirit of the rabbi. I recall, in the days of the flood, when the Daugava overflowed its banks and was on the brink of bursting the dam, both goyim and Jews swore that they saw Rav Meir Simcha stand on the dam, glance briefly at the raging waters, then murmur something. The waters then subsided and the danger passed.

His experience as a merchant in his younger years had given the Gaon the knowledge of how to smooth over the disagreements that arise in daily life.

In contrast, the shepherd of the Chasidic flock, the Rogachov Gaon, was short and agile with the face of an ascetic, his head adorned with curls which fell to his shoulders; he made an impression on all who saw him without even trying. Among his published books was the famous “Tzafnath Paneach.”

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After an hour-long meeting with the amazing Gaon, our national poet, H.N. Bialik expressed his feelings thus: “From the brain of the Rogachover it would be possible to create two Einsteins; a dear man whose reality is unlike any other, who is an enormous spiritual asset to the nation. If it were possible to scientifically utilize all of his brilliant knowledge, it would be possible to enrich our culture with dozens of valuable books. If it were possible to draw his Talmudic knowledge from the wellspring of his mind, it would be possible to create a comprehensive culture.” Those impressive remarks came from the mouth of Bialik after a meeting of only one hour's time. The city of Dvinsk was fortunate indeed to have rabbis who were among the most brilliant of their generation.

The Synagogues in Dvinsk

The Jews of Dvinsk were not extreme in their religion as were, for example, certain kinds of Jews in Poland, and were indeed far from similar to the Jews of the Meah Shearim neighborhood of Jerusalem. Rather, the vast majority were traditional Jews who observed the commandments without donning any special form of dress.

Although the shtreimel and the kapoteh were not to be seen, there were many synagogues and minyans in the city, and all were full of worshippers. The Ker Shul in the center of town on Petrogardska Street was especially noteworthy, with its splendid building and its opulent furnishings. The synagogue drew many worshippers who wanted to hear the cantor and chorus, whose pleasant voices appealed to those of discerning taste. This was where the secular “believers” gatheredů

A famous cantor who lived in the city made the Ker Shul his home, and those who were knowledgeable in the field of music could appreciate his singing.

On the other hand, there was the Planover minyan, where the Rogachover prayed; a place of prayer for dozens of minyans who came to pray in turns, starting with the early-birds and ending just before noon. This synagogue was always full to overflowing with worshippers. One minyan would complete its prayers and the next would begin. Also well-known was the house of study called Der Kahal Sha'ar” where Rabbi Meir Simcha prayed. Here everything was more relaxed; there were fewer worshippers and everything was calm. Rabbi Meir Simcha prayed for an extended period of time, and the worshippers would wait respectfully until he had finished the Shmoneh Esreh and had stepped back. This was in sharp contrast to the Rogachover, who would be the first to finish the Shmoneh Esreh and rush to the house of study where he would study Torah day and night.

Those were the best known minyans of the city. In addition, there were many dozens more, such as: Der Ketzbisher, Die Schneidershe Shul, Der Farbisher Minyan, and so on. In each one a large crowd of worshippers would gather. On Yom Kippur, all of the voices would fill the streets, and the entire city became as one huge prayer, coming tearfully from the heart.

Such was Dvinsk, a Jewish city always, on weekdays as well as holidays. There was also a yeshiva in the city, where about one hundred boys studied. Day and night they studied the daf yomi, or daily page [of the Talmud]. Some of them were extremely intelligent. The head of the yeshiva was Der Kavener, a brilliant man who captured people's hearts. The yeshiva was called Socha Horovitz after the generous and wealthy Reb Socha Horovitz, who established the yeshiva with his own money.

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The city of Dvinsk kept the Jewish traditions with great respect. Even the agnostics treated the believers with respect, and the latter in turn were tolerant of the former. It is worth remembering that Dvinsk was the cradle of the revolutionaries, the Bund, and the leftist Zionist movements. The two lived side by side in mutual respect, and even in the turbulent days, on the eve of elections, they kept to their own. This was the pride of the city, Torah and the belief that each way has its own merit.

The Political Parties in Dvinsk

Dvinsk was a fairly typical city insofar as poor people were concerned; within the majority there were concentrations of poverty where the people were barely able to make a living. In terms of social depression it was second to Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania. Its poverty was relatively proportionate and the people took a lively and vigorous interest in every matter regarding the fate of the people and the struggle for a better future and a more just society. The Jews of the city took an active part in every struggle against the oppressive government which discriminated against the Jews. Thirty-five percent of the city's Jews were workers who earned daily wages, and the rest were craftsmen whose income depended on the mercy of God. The wealthy, even according to the standards of the town, were so few a child could tally their number. Most people made a meager living. It was no wonder that the population responded to any sign of revolt against the subjugation and always hoped for an easing of their condition. Thus we find that, by the 1880s, when there was an outbreak of government-approved pogroms in tsarist Russia, active resistance groups were organized. At the same time, various associations were founded in the city, such as: Hovavei Zion named for Moshe Montefiore, Ahdut Zionit, Young Israel, Herut, Socialist Zionists, and Hatechiya. All worked towards the same goal: fighting against the taskmasters and for freedom from the oppressive government. The first group of Poale Zion was established in the city in 1900 with the inspiration of Ber Borochov and Shimoni (Dvin), after about a year an official list was created for the political party Poale Zion. In 1903 a Dvinsk group led by delegates Alter Yaffe and Zalman Abramson appeared at a conference of Poale Zion in Vilna. The program clearly defined the awareness of the class war, and socialism as the principles on which the movement was based. During the bloody days of 1905 the movement's organizers were hit hard by the government, and by the time World War I broke out the movement had been substantially weakened. Only in 1914 did the movement begin to recover, and in the days of Karnesky it revived but only for a short time. The first commissar in the city was the chairman of the Tzairei Zion party Comrade Rosenvein, thanks to whom people could walk about on guard duty during curfew nights, with authorization papers in their pockets, serving as a militia which had been formed in the city.

Also in the general Zionist movement were outstanding Zionists from Dvinsk: the representative of the association Hovavei Zion in Dvinsk, the delegate S. Y. Zacks, participated in 1890 in the convention of the Odessa Committee where the first signs of the Zionist youth movement appeared. Dvinsk was the first city to witness the appearance of the youth association Adamat Yisrael. In 1903, the Zionist workers' movement began to effect group immigration of its members to Eretz Yisrael, and the first pioneers set forth to build and be built. One of the members was Sarah Malkin, who became well-known as one of the first female pioneers. Also in the group were Rachel Gutman, Antin, Tehiya Lieberson, Eliezer Tsadikov, and Baruch Kasteral. From these members the pioneer movement in Dvinsk grew and spread. ╔migrÚs from the city can be found today on kibbutzim and moshavim, in rural communities, serving in the Hagana, and serving as commanders in the I.D.F. The first pioneers paved the way for the many that would come after them.

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The city of Dvinsk was one of the strongholds of the Bund. Mostly proletarian, its poor and impoverished strata were occupied by many industrial workers of the clothing and match factories, and others. The workers were drawn naturally to the Bund. They built their future on remaining in the Diaspora, and were satisfied with the demand for cultural autonomy for the Jews as an integral part of the S.D. party. In 1872 we find a group of revolutionaries led by the young Jew Eliyahu Snapp and the Russian Belyayev who was studying for the priesthood. In 1876, there were many arrests and almost the entire group was incarcerated; thereby effectively destroying the movement, which was called the Association of Socialist Revolutionaries. From 1893 – 1897 the city became a center for the outbreak of strikes for the improvement of work conditions and to ease the yoke of the political regime. The workers of Dvinsk celebrated the First of May for the first time in 1896. Representatives of the Bund in Dvinsk, led by representative Kaplinsky, played an active role in the Bund convention in Bialystok. In 1899 about 300 Jewish workers celebrated the First of May, and in 1902 the number of Jewish demonstrators had reached about 700. On the date of a demonstration in February 1905, the police clashed with demonstrators and 30 people were injured and killed. In memory of the victims of that bloody conflict, in 1925 a monument was erected in Dvinsk which became a rallying point for the members of the Bund.

During the trial of Beilis in 1913 the Jews of Dvinsk were in terrible anxiety. The name of the famous attorney Gruzenberg was on everyone's lips. People in the synagogues prayed for the libel charges to be dropped.

With the handing down of the judgment, the Jews were able to breathe comfortably.

During the trial, the Jews of Dvinsk did not flinch and organized a protest.

In 1915 the Bund planned a protest against the war. All of the participants were arrested and sent to jail.

At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the wave of war engulfed the city and scattered the residents like chaff in the wind. The city emptied almost completely of residents. Only once the war was over did the residents gradually return to the city, which began to recover a little. With the establishment of an independent Latvian state, the Jewish community numbered twelve thousand, as compared with 60,000 before the war. Broken-down refugees returned to the destroyed city, which was a shadow of its former self. They rushed to rebuild their community, and upon its old foundations a vigorous new life began to emerge. They were aided in this by the broad autonomy given to minorities and guaranteed by the Geneva Convention; until the bitter enemy rose up and truncated Jewish life, and the Jewish city of Dvinsk was erased from among the people of Israel.

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Jewish Activity in Dvinsk

The Jews of Dvinsk saw themselves as thoroughly Lithuanian, for they had absorbed the industriousness and erudition of their neighbor Lithuania. Amongst themselves they spoke a Vilna dialect of a poetic and vibrant Yiddish. They were proud of their skill in this language and used it creatively. The children received their daily education in this language. It is no wonder that Letski-Bertoldi, the member of the Constitutional Assembly of Latvia, relied upon Jewish Dvinsk when explaining the necessity for recognizing Yiddish as the Jewish language. Also among the goyim there were many who spoke Lithuanian Yiddish as fluently as our own people. The Jews played a large part in the development of the city, and visitors could feel the special Jewish ambience that pervaded it. Although the Jews made up only 14% of the population, their influence on the economy and on all aspects of public life was considerable. This was caused by the fact that population was made up of a mixture of peoples: Poles, Lithuanians, Russians, Ukrainians and so on. The Jews made up the largest minority of the population. The three most important offices in the municipality were held by Jews: finance, administration, and economy.

After the war, with the creation of the Latvian Republic, the political streams were represented and led by the following people:

From the Bund:   Dr. Noah Mayzel, Yitzhak Levin-Shatzkas
From the General Zionists:   Glinternik, Storich
From Tzairei Zion:   Dr. Gordon
From Socialist Zionists:   Moshe Bliach (Amir), Dr. Zand
From the Merchants:   the Koplovski brothers, Bolbaka
From the Property Owners:   the Gorbintz brothers, Edelstein
From the Artisans:   Ravdin
They were the face of the city, its spokesmen, during the period of the independent Latvia up until the Fascist Revolution (1934). With the rise political parties in the framework of a liberal Latvia, the parties mentioned below came into existence and were active in every field, and Dvinsk once again became a center of vigorous cultural life. Pioneering youth movements such as Gordonia, Hashomer Hazair, Netzach, and Beitar were established, and the athletic divisions of the Zionist youth and the Socialist Zionists gained recognition. In spite of opposition from the Bund, the Zionist workers' Socialist Zionist camp was officially recognized and became quite influential.

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Industry and Commerce in the City

There were very few wealthy people in the city. Notable amongst the industrialists were: the Horowitz family, the Zacks family, the Grilicks family, and the Wittenburg family. They were dominant in the fields of beer, leather, lumber, matches and soap. The majority of the Jews were small shopkeepers, or small workshop owners where sometimes the owner was the only worker, or he worked with one assistant.

Most of the workshop owners were milliners, shoemakers, carpenters, and tailors – based on the rule that was forced upon them: “go forth and make your living from one another.”

Among the small shopkeepers were those who were quite successful and made a tidy profit. With all of the liberalism of the democratic Latvian government, there were still economic areas in which there existed a certain taboo, that no Jew could set foot in them.

In all of Latvia there were only 21 Jewish government clerks out of a total of 5,291, or 0.4%, at a time (1925) when Jews made up 5% of the population. There was one Jewish policeman, who served in Riga, out of a total of 4,316 in the entire country. When he made his rounds everyone wanted to see the only Jewish policeman.

Among the 1,682 clerks in civil service there was not one single Jew. Only two Jews worked for the postal service, and thirty-three for the railroad.

Altogether, only about 200 Jews worked for the government of the Latvian democracy, out of 100,000 Jews in the country. That was the reward they received for all their help in establishing the creation of Latvia and designing the government.

It's no wonder that in the city of Dvinsk, full of Jews though it was, not even ten Jews, through whom their fellows could have received service, worked for the government.

The few Jews currently living in Soviet Dvinsk are not natives of the city but rather are Russian Jews who moved there.

Of the previous citizens of the city only a very few remain, because almost all of the city's Jews were annihilated by the Nazi beast.

The few who remain walk dazed through the city. In their letters to their loved ones, they still mumble: “Dvinsk without Jews. Inconceivable!”

On the paving stones of the city's streets where passersby set their feet, one can see the partially-erased letters representing “Here lies…” These tombstones bear witness to the passing of the Jews of Dvinsk from one end of the city to another, where the Jews of Dvinsk would have their dachas (summer homes) under the murmuring trees where now live Latvians who killed the owners and inherited the homes in Pogolianka and Strop, where the bones of many murdered Jews are buried.

The red flag waves above the city, which is red from the blood of the slaughtered Jews to whom no memorial or tombstone has been raised.

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Cultural Life in the City

With the establishment of the country of Latvia, the cultural life of Dvinsk blossomed in every way. Six new schools were established in the city (two in Yiddish, two in Hebrew, one in Russian and one a religious school). There was a progymnasia [secondary school] in Russian, a municipal gymnasia in Hebrew, a night school in Yiddish, and an ORT trade school. Dozens of Hebrew classes were offered. There were lectures and symposia. Jewish Dvinsk was a leader in culture and language.

The Jewish Community in the City

Before World War I several different charitable organizations existed in the city, such as Linat HaTzedek, Bikur Holim, Kimcha DePascha, and Gimilut Chasadim.

The people of Dvinsk were generous and kept the mitzvot. Although there was an air of philanthropy involved, there were also good intentions and kind-heartedness.

With the establishment of the country of Latvia the Jewish community in Dvinsk developed a well-organized public life: democratic elections were held in which all of the public streams took part, a community board was elected and institutions were established that were managed and supervised by the board. A well-stocked library was founded near the community, as were a pharmacy and home for the aged. Thousands of the needy received food for Passover and other aid from the community. The community owned real estate; the municipal hospital Der Yiddisher Shpital was owned by the community. The community administration was housed in a spacious building on Miasnitzka Street. It also owned land outside of the city, which had been leased for a token sum to the Histadrut HeHalutz. The land and buildings were used as a preparation community for Zionists hoping to move to Eretz Yisrael. Thus it was possible for the halutzim (pioneers) to establish a kibbutz thanks to the community, in which all of the Zionist political parties were represented.

The first head of the community was the attorney Minkovitch (who later moved to Eretz Yisrael and lived in Jerusalem for the remainder of his life). The next leader was the attorney Tzvi. There were arguments, decisions were made, and the community of Dvinsk provided an excellent example of cooperation amongst all of the political parties with mutual respect and democratic process in the full meaning of the word.

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